Dungeness crab could be harder to come by if hundreds of fishing boats remain tied up at docks from California to Washington state by a dispute between crabbers and seafood processors over the price of the sought-after crustaceans.
Crab fleets that have been fishing in parts of Oregon and near San Francisco are now anchored, and other vessels in Washington state and Northern California have opted not to go out as their season gears up, said John Corbin, a commercial crab fisherman in Warrenton, Oregon, and chairman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
"We have about 1,200 boats that are tied up and are willing to stay tied up until processors bring the price back to $3 (a pound)" from the latest offer of $2.75, Corbin said Tuesday.
At Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, crab pots remained stacked up along the docks during what typically would be a busy season. From Half Moon Bay, California, to Westport, Washington, crabbers said they would stay put.
Larry Andre, a commercial crab fisherman in Half Moon Bay who had been fishing since November, said he supports the strike.
"We're tying up because they've asked us — other ports — to support them," Andre said.
It doesn't sound like much, but a quarter drop in price is a lot when thousands of pounds of crab is involved, he said, adding that the situation is a lot harder on those who have not yet started crabbing.
The commercial Dungeness crab season along the West Coast opened in waves this year, and crabbers had been getting $3 a pound, Corbin and other fishermen said. In some parts of Washington, Oregon and California, crabbing was delayed as state officials tested for domoic acid to ensure crabs were safe to eat.
Just before Christmas, Pacific Choice Seafood in Eureka, California, dropped the price to $2.75 a pound to local fishermen, said Ken Bates, vice president of the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association. Dungeness prices could go lower in following seasons if that lower price holds, he worried.
"When Pacific Group decided in Humboldt County to reduce the price, they figured that this place would fold," Bates said. "It didn't. Fisherman didn't go fishing for that price."
Dan Occhipinti, general counsel for Oregon-based Pacific Seafood, which owns Pacific Choice, said in an emailed statement Wednesday buyers and sellers each have to decide what they think the market will support.
"It can be challenging to find the right balance, but we're confident that at the end of the day, consumers will get wholesome, sustainably harvested Dungeness crab at a price they can afford," he wrote.
Strikes have happened before as Dungeness crab fishermen and seafood processers haggle over the opening price of the sweet crustacean. It remains unclear what impact it will have on supply.
Tribal fleets in Washington state continue to crab, and crabbing is happening in Puget Sound as well. So there is some crab on the market.
"There's going to be some fresh crab in Washington state, but not big volumes like what you'll see when the whole coast opens up," Corbin said.
Bill Currie, a crab fisherman based out of Westport, Washington, said he's watching to see what others do when the crabbing season north of Long Beach kicks off Wednesday. Fishermen will be allowed to set gear ahead of a Jan. 7 start.
"If everybody stays, I'll stay. I'm not going to be going out," Currie said.
He said a $2.75 per pound price seems reasonable, though $3 would be better.
Mike Shirley, who buys crab wholesale from fishermen at facilities in Oregon and Washington, said "until this dispute is resolved, we're standing united with the whole process and not buying any kind of crab."
"This doesn't just affect one side, it affects everybody," said Shirley, who co-owns Garibaldi Landing Fishermen and Ilwaco Landing Fishermen, which offers commercial seafood offloading, processing and other services. About 20 employees are at home as a result, he said.
"I hope we get this settled, and everybody can get back to work," Corbin said. "It will definitely put a pinch on supply eventually, but we hope it doesn't go on forever here. It's getting to be a matter of principle at this point."